A British tech icon: the Psion 5mx

My Psion 5mx

Rarely had I been so excited to unbox a new ‘toy’. It was March 2000, and I’d just driven back to Cardiff from meetings in North Wales. The anticipation kept my tiredness at bay. It was a joy to take my new Psion 5mx personal organiser out of the box and turn it on for the first time.

I wasn’t disappointed. I’d never seen an electronic device quite as gorgeous. In the days when laptops weighted a ton, and mobile phones did little more than make calls and handle text messages, I marvelled how Psion had shrunk the essential elements of a laptop into a device that fitted in a pocket (just). Best of all was the keyboard, which flipped seamlessly into the clamshell case when you’d finished your tasks.

Opening…
Above: open

Psion had also included a comprehensive, easy to follow user manual – what a difference from today’s tech, which comes with barely a page of quick start instructions.

I wasn’t alone in 2000 in choosing a personal digital assistant. These electronic versions of the classic 1980s Filofax were amongst the top tech devices of the early Millennium years, with Psion and Palm leading the way.

With the Psion, I finally ditched my Filofax, using the contacts, calendar and various other functions. The most exciting moment (remember: this was 2001!) was when I sent my first email from a train, as I travelled from Southampton to London 20 years ago this month. I hooked up the PDA with my basic Nokia phone and was thrilled to see the message racing into cyberspace.

Just a week later came disaster. I was pacing down the platform at Euston station in London when I dropped my briefcase. As a result, the 19 month old Psion’s screen was badly cracked. I’m not sure why I didn’t explore the possibility of a repair, but I couldn’t buy a new 5mx as Psion had stopped making its iconic PDAs earlier in the year. It was the end of an era. I got a Compaq Pocket PC as its replacement, but it was never quite the same. (Although five years later I regularly posted to my blog from it when travelling, again getting online through my phone’s modem.)

In time, I got a work BlackBerry, and like so many found it the perfect device for email on the go. (Although the keyboard couldn’t compare with the Psion’s.) BlackBerry’s bosses Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie insisted on making its famous device as simple as possible so it did one thing – email – amazingly well by the standards of the turn of the Millennium. It made the PDA largely obsolete as it was able to send and receive emails on its own, without needing another device to act as modem to get online. Its most addicted users called it the CrackBerry.

In turn, however, the iPhone and later Android smartphones showed it was possible for one gadget to do much more: email, browsing the web, keeping a calendar and contacts list – and so much more. BlackBerry’s bosses Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie simply didn’t see the iPhone as an existential threat until it was far too late. The car crash launch of BlackBerry 10 in 2013 was the beginning of the end. Not long after, our company IT team told me to use an iPhone not a BlackBerry for work emails.

Back to the future?

Back to life

I never got rid of my broken Psion. Every now and then I’d open the clamshell, marvelling at the magical way the keyboard appeared. Today, I replaced the batteries and to my joy found it turned on. Was I wrong all those years ago to write off my revered toy? Sadly no. The touch screen still doesn’t work properly, and the screen is so faint. But it was fun to see what it was like to use the Psion in 2000.

But then I made a discovery. The Psion 5 series has been reborn as the Gemini PDA, available in wifi and wifi & 4G versions. The keyboard is based on the Psion 5’s brilliant original, and it has a similar clamshell design. My impulse said: buy one! Then my head said: why? Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but this is 2021 not 2000. I’m very happy with my stable of devices: MacBook Pro for heavyweight work, my iPhone for on the go stuff, and my iPad for both. The Gemini is an Android device, so much more versatile than the old Psion 5mx but there’s no gap in my computing life for the Gemini to fill. That said, it would have been helpful on my recent bikepacking trip instead of my Kindle. And I have been thinking about getting an iPad Mini for such expeditions. Maybe there is a gap after all…

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